A group of high-profile Hong Kong activists have admitted taking part in a banned candlelit vigil to commemorate the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre – almost a year after the unauthorised assembly took place.

On Friday, Joshua Wong, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Jannelle Leung pleaded guilty at the District Court before Judge Stanley Chan to participating in last year’s event, which was banned by the police citing Covid-19 fears.

Joshua Wong. File photo: Studio Incendo.

In all, 26 high profile pro-democracy campaigners were charged last August with either holding, participating in or inciting others to take part in an unauthorised assembly on June 4, 2020, to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the 1989 crackdown. 24 defendants remain in the case after activists Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung left the city.

Protest regular Grandma Wong in front of the District Court. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Among the defendants were media mogul Jimmy Lai, and veteran activists including “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Chow Hang-tung. The judge consolidated the cases of four defendants, whilst the case against Eddie Chu was adjourned until June 11. Upon conviction, the participation charge carries a fine of up to HK$10,000 and 12 months imprisonment.

The Tiananmen massacre happened on June 4, 1989, ending months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died when the People’s Liberation Army was deployed to crack down on protesters in Beijing.

Covid concerns

Last year’s candlelit vigil was officially banned by police for the first time in three decades. On Friday, the prosecutor said that police had met with protest organisers at the end of May 2020 to discuss the arrangements for the vigil, but decided to prohibit the public gathering out of public health concerns.

The police decision was made after health authorities said there may be silent Covid-19 transmission chains in the community and it would be impossible to ensure social distancing, the prosecutor alleged. The prosecution played several videos showing the vigil during the hearing.

Near the June 4 vigil last year. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The event was attended by 50,000 to 100,000 people, the prosecutor told the court, after a group of over 100 people were led into Victoria Park by Lee Cheuk-yan, despite the police ban.

All four defendants said they understood and agreed to the summary of facts laid out by the prosecution.

During the prosecution’s submission, Judge Chan requested that the prosecutor refrain from repeating slogans chanted by the defendants. “What’s the point of repeating those slogans in the summary of facts?” Chan said, saying that the content of the slogans was irrelevant to whether the defendants participated in the unauthorised assembly.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

During the mitigation submissions, defence counsel Paul Harris presented brief biographies of the accused: “These four young people are intelligent, they are well-educated and – apart from what I call ‘protest-related cases’… – have not otherwise committed a criminal offense,” Harris said.

“And one thing we cannot doubt in this case, is the sincerity that they displayed” in pursuit of human rights, he said. Harris also submitted that the judge could consider sentencing Yuen and Leung to community service, to which Chan responded that such a punishment would not be appropriate.

‘Persist till the end’

Due to the fact that the case involved high profile activists, Chan ordered the proceedings to be interpreted in Cantonese to ensure transparency, even though the defence said the four defendants did not require the service.

Dozens of people gathered in front of the Wan Chai courthouse on Friday ahead of the hearing to show their support for the defendants as a dozen police officers stood nearby.

Three of the defendants are currently in custody in connection with other criminal cases. Joshua Wong is in custody after admitting to inciting people to join a protest near the police headquarters in June 2020, while Lester Shum and Tiffany Yuen are in custody over a national security case related to the democrats’ primaries in July 2020.

Leung, who was initially on bail, is to be remanded custody as the four await sentencing on May 6.

The defendants will be sentenced on May 6.

Defendant and former lawmaker Eddie Chu shouted “Thank you everyone, keep going Hongkongers,” as the proceedings adjourned briefly in the morning. Members of the public shouted “persist till the end” after the hearing ended.

Correction 6.5.2021: A previous of version of this story stated that the defendants were charged in December. They were charged in August 2020.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.